Algeria and Morocco fight over gas, separatists and Western Sahara

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Threats to cut gas supplies, allegations of support for a separatist group and renewed tensions in disputed territory – relations between Algeria and Morocco, rivals who have waged a border war, have deteriorated in recent weeks.

One of the consequences of the deterioration of relations is that the Algerian Minister of Petroleum has declared that his country will not renew the agreement, which expires at the end of October, which governs a gas pipeline carrying Algerian natural gas through Morocco to Morocco. Spain. Algiers has also banned Moroccan flights from its airspace.

Algerian security services announced last week that they had arrested 17 people and foiled a plot to carry out armed attacks by the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, MAK, a Paris-based group that calls for self-determination of the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia in northern Algeria. The group denied any involvement in the violence and said it only used peaceful means.

The announcement indicated that the alleged MAK agents, designated as a terrorist organization in Algeria, were aided by “the Zionist entity. [Israel] and a country in North Africa ”- understood as a reference to Morocco, which normalized relations with the Jewish state last year.

Still strained, ties between North African neighbors have completely severed due to renewed tensions in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and analysts warn of the danger of escalation.

“The biggest risk is the miscalculation,” said Riccardo Fabiani, director of North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “While neither Algeria nor Morocco has an interest in starting a war, the risk is that tensions will escalate beyond control if either side goes too far. This miscalculation could lie in Western Sahara, fueling a military escalation. . . or it could lead to direct border clashes between the two countries, for example. “

Morocco, which controls most of the arid and sparsely populated territory of Western Sahara since Spain’s withdrawal in 1975, claims sovereignty. But Algeria welcomes and supports the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi group fighting for the independence of the territory.

Plans for a UN referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara have stalled for decades. A 30-year ceasefire was broken in November last year and the Polisario Front resumed low-intensity lightning attacks and long-range bombardments against Moroccan positions in the territory.

Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara was reinforced by the American recognition of its sovereignty over the territory in December 2020 under the administration of Donald Trump, in return for the normalization of Rabat’s relations with Israel.

A result of the US recognition, analysts say, is that Morocco has pursued a more assertive foreign policy aimed at bringing about a similar shift in countries still adhering to the UN position on disputed territory. He froze relations with the German embassy in Rabat and recalled his own ambassador to Berlin because Germany criticized the US decision.

American support and normalization with Israel have changed the dynamics of relations between Morocco and Algeria, according to Fabiani. “With the normalization agreement, Morocco now has access to Israeli technology such as drones,” he added. “We fear in Algiers that this will change the balance of power. ”

Algeria severed relations in August after Morocco’s ambassador to the UN declared that “the valiant Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination.”

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune clarified last week that no decision had yet been taken on the pipeline, although he suggested his country would close any breaches of its pledge to supply gas to Spain through LNG transport.

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Morocco used the gas from the pipeline to supply part of its electricity production and also benefited from a royalty for passage through its territory. Losing access to natural gas would be “a major drawback, but Morocco has prepared for it,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft, a UK risk consultancy. That would, however, force the kingdom to resort to more expensive LNG or coal, he said.

Tebboune also increased the belligerent tone in his interview. He said anyone who attacks Algeria “will regret the day they were born, because we will not stop [fighting]”. He added: “Morocco has a long and repeated history of hostile acts against Algeria.

Dalia Ghanem, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, pointed out that Algeria was also outraged by revelations in July that Morocco had used the Pegasus malware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company, to hack phones. hundreds of its officials. Rabat has denied the charges. “Both regimes are trying to keep their populations occupied with trivial matters instead of focusing on what’s going on inside because both have to deal with internal dissent,” she said.

Mohammed Masbah, director of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, said relations between the two countries were “like an endless cold war”, and “Algerians felt threatened and cornered”. He warned of the potential for inadvertent violence. “In the current situation, the best outcome would be to return to the status quo before the current escalation and to manage the crisis through diplomacy.”


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